pig in a poke

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pig in a poke

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon Jan 04, 2016 7:25 pm

<2013 “Then he looked at the possibilities of internet dating. The trouble with that was you were buying a pig in a poke. He sniggered to himself at his cleverness, his skill with language.”—Cross and Burn by Val McDermid, page 3>
I’ve come across this down-home expression very occasionally, but I usually figured the meaning out from the context. Jonathon Green, answered the question of its meaning very concisely back here in 1998. I like his choice of "sight unseen."

I found the following discussion which adds a little bit more information:


PIG IN A POKE: An object offered in a manner that conceals its true value, especially its lack of value. For example, Eric believes that buying a used car is buying a pig in a poke. This expression alludes to the practice of substituting a worthless object, such as a cat, for the costly suckling pig a customer has bought and wrapping it in a poke or sack. It dates from a time when buyers of groceries relied on a weekly farmers’ market and, unless they were cautious enough to check the poke’s contents, would not discover the skulduggery until they got home. The word poke dates from the 13th century but is now used mainly in the southern United States. The idiom was first recorded in John Heywood’s 1562 collection of proverbs.

Contrary to my belief that pig in a poke was almost a dead idiom, I found about 1500 hits in a newspaper archive, which is a goodly number:
<1986 “The Pentagon was forced to help finance the shuttle program starting in the '70s and isn't likely to buy another pig in a poke soon.”—Chicago Sun-Times (Illinois), 25 May>

<1992 “The people who bought into the notion that there was some magic, pain-free way to live with ‘no new taxes were buying a pig in a poke.”—Boston Globe (Massachusetts), 30 August>

<1998 “President Clinton, of course, has been critical of these efforts, warning in his native language that Americans shouldn't buy a ‘pig in a poke.’”—The Washington Times (D.C), 18 May>

<2004 “To be sure, some lawyers said the Tyco mistrial was a fluke and wasn't likely to affect the way defense attorneys advise their clients in these cases. Lawyers said it's unlikely Andy Fastow would stop cooperating with prosecutors. "I'm sure the government didn't buy pig in a poke when they agreed to a guilty plea," said Frank Razzano, a former federal prosecutor.”—Daily News (New York, New York), 8 April>

<2010 “Some voters may discover after completing their ballots that they bought a pig in a poke. That's because the independent investigation conducted by Robert P. Trout into million-dollar contracts awarded to firms with ties to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's administration won't be completed until well after the polls close.”—The Washington Post (D.C.), 14 August>

<2015 “We don't know exactly what the [[Iran]] deal says. That's our problem. We're buying a pig in a poke. Is it a 10-year deal? The President, when he first announced it, said if we can stop them from getting nuclear weapons in 10 years we've succeeded.”—States News Service, 3 September>
Ninety-nine percent of the pig in the poke hits were from politics or business! (Of course, this is a newspaper archive.) Seems more like “pig in a briefcase.” (<:)

Ken – January 4, 2016

Re: pig in a poke

Post by trolley » Mon Jan 04, 2016 10:05 pm

The old switcheroo...and then someone lets the cat out of the bag.

Re: pig in a poke

Post by Phil White » Tue Jan 05, 2016 1:43 pm

As trolley implies, "to buy a pig in a poke" and "let the cat out of the bag" are two sides of the same idiom, namely of buying a pig "sight unseen" in a sack, only to find out that it was a cat.

Strangely, the equivalent German idioms, which are also in widespread use, are:
"Die Katze im Sack kaufen" (lit. "buy a cat in a sack", i.e. to buy a pig in a poke)
"Die Katze aus dem Sack lassen" (lit. "Let the cat out of the bag")

So German does not reference the pig at all. Interestingly, the idiom is extremely widespread, not only in European languages, but also in languages as diverse as Vietnamese and Zulu. The Wikipedia article has an extensive list, and some languages go for the "pig in the sack" variant, and others for the "cat in the sack" variant. Either way, it seems that the medieval confidence trick was pretty ubiquitous.

I am quite sure that Sheba would prefer a cat in a sack to a pig in a poke.
Signature: Phil White
Non sum felix lepus

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